kmut hamsun: “i never really knew what fear was until that time during my first stay in america”

knut hamsun’s wild, wild west:

“The expression ‘son of a bitch’ is America’s — as well as England’s — national insult. I could not allow myself to be addressed that way without making some sort of reply, and I had an urge to open the door and fire at the scoundrels.”

book cover of 

Knut Hamsun Remembers America 

Essays And Stories, 1885-1949 


Knut Hamsun

Knut Hamsun, “Terror”


This story, first published in 1897, is based on an event that occurred thirteen years earlier, but Hamsun is either exercising poetic license or suffering from a memory lapse when he says Jesse James was captured and killed at Madelia. Jesse and his brother Frank escaped after their foiled bank robbery attempt in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1876.The three Younger brothers, who had joined in the Northfield raid, were captured near Madelia. Jesse James, however, enjoyed a notoriety that the Youngers could not match, and Hamsun might have thought that Madelia would acquire an aura of evil appropriate for his story if James were associated with the town.


I never really knew what fear was until that time during my first stay in America. Not that my courage was so great, but it had never been put to such a thorough test before. This was in the year 1884.


Out on the prairie lies a little town known as Madelia, a very depressing and unattractive place with its ugly houses, rough plank sidewalks, and  ungracious people. This is where Jesse James, America’s most bloodthirsty and trigger-happy bandit, was finally captured and killed. He had gone there to hide out—a fitting place for that monster who for many years had made the free states hazardous with his attacks, his plundering, and his murders.


I went there, too, but with a more peaceful aim, which was simply to help an acquaintance out of a difficulty. An American by the name of Johnston was a schoolteacher in a Wisconsin town, where I had got to know him and his wife. Some time later this man left schoolteaching for a more practical occupation: he moved to that prairie town of Madelia and went into the lumber business. After he had been in it for a year, I received a letter from him asking whether I could come to Madelia and run the business while he and his wife took a trip to the East. Being unemployed at the moment, I left for Madelia.


I arrived at the Madelia railroad station on a dark winter evening, was met by Johnston, went home with him, and was shown to my room. His house was located some distance outside of town. We spent much of the night with his explaining the fine points of the lumber business, all of it unfamiliar to me. The next morning Johnston jokingly handed me his revolver, and a couple of hours later he and his wife were on the train.

Now that I was alone in the house, I moved from my room to the living room, where I could make myself more comfortable and where, besides, I could better keep an eye on the whole house. I also began to use the Johnstons’ bed.


The same routine went on for several days. I sold planks and boards and, every afternoon, took the day’s cash accumulation down to the bank, where it was receipted in my bankbook.


There was nobody else in the house; I was all by myself. I got my own meals, milked and took care of Johnston’s two cows, baked bread, boiled and broiled one thing and another. My first attempt at baking did not turn out very well; I used too much flour and did not bake the dough long enough, so the bread had raw streaks in it, and the next day it was hard as a rock. I was also unlucky the first time I tried to cook cereal. In the pantry I found a peck of nice pearl barley, which seemed ideal for cooking. I poured milk into a large casserole, then added barley and began to stir. I soon realized my mixture was too thick, so I added more milk. Then I stirred some more. But, as the stuff bubbled and boiled, the barley pearls swelled up as big as peas, and there was a shortage of milk again. The stuff was expanding so fast that the casserole was about to boil over. I began to ladle it out into cups and other containers, but it threatened to boil over anyhow. I found more cups and containers, and they all filled up. The casserole kept on wanting to boil over, and it kept on demanding milk—until the soup became as thick as pudding. Finally I had no other recourse, so I poured the entire contents of the casserole out on a board, just a plain old board. The contents flowed over it like lava, to make a lovely mess, lying quite still, good and thick, hardening as it lay there.


Now I had materia prima, so to speak, and whenever I wanted cereal after that, I merely cut off a piece of the stuff on the board, mixed milk with it, and boiled it again. I ate it heroically for all my meals, every day, to get rid of it. To tell the truth, this was hard work, but I knew absolutely no one in the town I could invite to help me. And finally I finished the job alone.


For a man of twenty-some years, all by himself, it was quite lonely in that big house. The nights were cold and dark, and there was no neighbor in any direction until you got to town. Still, I was not afraid and had no reason to be. And when, two evenings in a row, I thought I heard a suspicious noise, like someone fooling with the lock on the kitchen door, I got up, took a lamp with me, and checked the door both inside and outside. But I found nothing wrong with the lock. And I did not pick up the revolver.


A night was to come, though, when I would be seized by a terror more hair-raising than anything I ever experienced before or since. And for a long time afterward I suffered from that night’s experience.


That day I was unusually busy, closing several big transactions and being tied up with work all afternoon. By the time I finally finished, it was so late that it was quite dark and the bank was closed. Since I could not deposit the day’s cash, I took it home with me and counted it in the living room: it came to $700 or $800.


That evening, as usual, I sat down to do some writing. It grew later and later as I sat and wrote. Midnight came, and then two o’clock. Suddenly I again heard that mysteriousfiddling with the kitchen door. What was it?


There were two outer doors to the house: the one that led into the kitchen and another, the main entrance, that led into a hallway in front of the living room. For security, I had propped this front door shut with a beam on the inside. The living room had window shades of a patented kind, so tight that from the outside a person could see absolutely no light from the lamp.


And now there was that noise at the kitchen door.


I picked up the lamp, went and stood near the door, and listened. Someone was out there; I could hear whispering and the squeaking of footsteps in the snow. I listened for quite a while. The whispering stopped, and the squeaking steps seemed to move farther away. Then all became quiet. I went back to the living room and sat down to write again. A half hour went by.


Suddenly I was so startled I felt as if I jumped out of my skin. The front door was being smashed in. Not only the lock but the prop inside the door snapped, and I heard steps in the hallway right outside the inner door of the living room. The break-in was possible only with a hard running start and with the combined efforts of more than one person, for the prop was quite strong.


My heart did not beat—it quivered. I made no outcry, not a sound, but I felt the agitation of my heart all the way up in my throat, and it kept me from breathing properly. For a few seconds I was so terrified I hardly knew where I was. Then it occurred to me that I must save the money, so I went into the bedroom, took my wallet out of my pocket, and stuck it under the bedclothes. After that, I went back to the living room, the whole operation having surely taken less than a minute.


There was muffled talking outside the door, along with the sound of its lock being picked. I took out Johnston’s revolver and examined it. It worked. My hands shook violently, and my legs could hardly hold me up.


My eyes fell upon the door. It was unusually solid, made of planks with heavy crosspieces. It was, you might say, not carpentered but timbered together. Encouraged by the massiveness of the door, I again began to think—which up to now I certainly had not been doing.The door opened outward and consequently could not be broken in, especially since the hallway out there was too short to allow a running start. As I realized this, I suddenly became quite a plucky fellow. I yelled that anyone coming in would die on the spot. Nobody but me could have understood what I was saying, since I was speaking Norwegian. Realizing the stupidity of this, I repeated my threat loudly in English. No answer. To get my eyes used to the darkness in case the windows should be broken in and the lamp go out, I immediately put out the light. I now stood in the dark, with my eyes directed toward the windows and with the revolver in my hand. Time dragged on. Growing bolder and bolder, I dared to act like a hell of a fellow.


I called out: “Now, what have you decided? Are you going or coming? I want to sleep.”


The answer soon came in the hoarse voice of someone with a cold: “We’re going, you son of a bitch.”


And I could hear someone leaving the entrance and squeaking away in the snow.


The expression “son of a bitch” is America’s—as well as England’s—national  insult. I could not allow myself to be addressed that way without making some sort of reply, and I had an urge to open the door and fire at the scoundrels. I held back, though, thinking at the last minute that possibly just one of the men had left the entryway, while the other perhaps waited for me to open the door so that he could attack me. I therefore went over to one of the windows, sent the roller shade up to the ceiling as quick as lightning, and peeked out. I thought I saw a dark object against the snow. I opened the window, aimed as well as I could at the dark point, and pulled the trigger. Click. I tried again. Click. Furious, I went through the whole cylinder without aiming, and finally a single pitiful shot went off. It made a big bang in that frozen air, and I heard someone over on the road yell: “Run! Run!”


Suddenly a man, still in the entryway, ran out into the snow and disappeared down the road. I had guessed right: there was one of them left. And I could not nicely tell this man good-night, for there had been only the one miserable shot in the revolver, the one I fired.


I lit the lamp again, got out the money, and put it in my pocket. Now that the whole thing was over with, I  became such a terrible coward that Idid not dare lie down in the couple’s bed that night. After waiting a half hour or so, until it began to get light outdoors, I put on my overcoat and left the house, shutting and barring the broken door as best I could. I sneaked down to the town and rang the doorbell at the hotel.


Who the crooks were, I do not know. They were hardly professionals, for if they had been they would not have given up because of a door when there were two windows they could have come through. But neither were these scoundrels without a certain cold and brazen capacity for violence, since they broke both the lock and the prop on the outer door.


Never have I been so fearful for my life as I was that night in the prairie town of Madelia, Jesse James’s hideout. Since then, there have also been acouple of times when I was so frightened that my heartbeat worked right up into my throat and made it hard for me to breathe—a reminder of that night. Before that, I had never known of a fright that could have such an extraordinary effect.



—from Knut Hamsun Remembers America: Essays and Stories 1885—1949. Translated and edited by Richard Nelson Current. University of Missouri Press, 2003


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